Frei: Bednar pushes the right buttons

Isn’t this jarring?

After Paul Maurice’s in-season resignation at Winnipeg and Jeff Blashill’s ouster at Detroit this week, the Avalanche’s Jared Bednar– hired on August 25, 2016 – is now the third-longest-tenured NHL head coach.

He’s behind only Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper (March 25, 2013) and Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan (Dec. 12, 2015).

In a league that treats coaches as if they are disposable razors – and not even the decent ones, but the ones that scrape more than shave – the man who was smiling after the Avalanche’s 7-2 rout of the Predators in Game 1 of the first round at Ball Arena Tuesday night has beaten the odds in his first NHL job.

I asked him if that was a dream start to the series for him. The Avs led 5-0 after one period and 6-1 after two.

“Yup, it was,” he said. “Whenever you are able to capitalize early in a game and then sort of carry that momentum through the first period… I felt like we played exactly the way we wanted to play. We were using our speed, we were on pucks, guys were forechecking hard. We were aggressive and we defended really well, a 200-foot effort from our guys. It was to score early. The crowd helps with that, they were buzzing right away from the drop of the puck. Guys could feel the energy in the building. ”

You can make the case that Bednar worked for NHL organizations as an AHL head coach at Peoria (Blues) and Cleveland (Blue Jackets), but he had never played or coached in the NHL until after Patrick Roy’s surprise resignation and Bednar’s hiring a few weeks later.

I wrote this profile of Bednar as his first season with the Avs was about to begin, and I’ll arrogantly declare it remains the definitive narrative here of his background.

Part of the reason for Bednar’s relative longevity on the Avalanche job is Joe Sakic’s extraordinary patience. That, plus Sakic’s refusal to follow NHL convention and overreact and scapegoat during downturns or perceived playoff underachievement. Even this season, when the Avs got off to a 4-5-1 start, Sakic’s response was to wait… then sign Bednar to a contract extension in mid-November, taking him through 2023-24.

But much of it is that Bednar, 50, remains a good fit, an influential voice in no danger of being tuned out any time soon. Plus a strategic innovator, mainly when giving carte blanche to all six defensemen in the lineup – not just Cale Makar and Devon Toews – to jump up, into the play.

It’s not undisciplined firewagon hockey. It’s orderly and productive aggressiveness, with the kicker reminder that it can be done without abandoning defensive attention to detail.

By the forwards, too.

It requires talent, which the Avalanche obviously have, but I get the impression Bednar would never be a trap proponent, regardless of his personnel.

After the morning skate Tuesday, I asked Bednar if this team has a playoff albatross to shake off – they’re the lost-in-the-second-round-three-years-in-a-row Avalanche on first reference, at least according to the Associated Press stylebook – and whether he’s tired of answering that question.

“Yeah, I’m tired of being asked that question,” Bednar said, good-naturedly. “We don’t mind the pressure. The pressure’s fine. It just shows you where we’re at. I’d rather have the pressure and be a team that’s considered one of the top teams and go out and prove it, than have no chance at all. It’s where our team has gotten to by this point. ”

He also said “the result will take care of itself if we do the right things and play the right way. And if someone beats you, you have to tip your cap and move on. It’s going to be highly competitive right away from the drop of the puck, as we saw last night in almost every series. It’s going to be a grind, so I’m looking forward to the next two to the next two months, hopefully. ”

The Avs came in injury-free for the first time since… well, forever. Bednar and staff made the decisions to make Logan O’Connor, Alex Newhook, Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray and Kurtis MacDermid. Frankly, the scratch of O’Connor surprised me the most. Nicolas Aube-Kubel was on the third line and the fourth line was Nico Sturm between Andrew Cogliano and Darren Helm. It didn’t hurt that a seemingly overmatched David Rittich started in goal for Nashville, in place of the injured Juuse Saros, and allowed five goals on 13 shots.

It all worked. Nathan MacKinnon – responding to his own challenge for the Avalanche stars to “drive the bus” – had two goals and an assist, and Cale Makar had a goal and two assists.

Cogliano suffered an upper body injury and didn’t play in the third and Bednar at least hinted MacDermid would be an option for Game 2, considering the Predators’ chippiness and – surprise – the way the game turned ugly after it was out of hand.

Yes, the NHL at its worst is the seeming obligation to be idiots when getting blown out in the playoff game. Unsurprisingly, the Predators did it, honoring a league tradition. The Avs had to balance not being too passive, but not getting sucked in.

“Discipline, that’s what it is,” Bednar said. “You have to play physical, you have to be able to push back, except you have to be disciplined. We don’t need to get involved in scrums after the whistle. I mean, you have to stick up for yourself to a certain extent. But our guys have been instructed that if we have the option to just skate away, that’s what we’re going to do. This isn’t about ego. It’s about winning. ”

Bednar and staff made the right calls. At least on the first night of the playoff run.

Terry Frei (terry@terryfrei.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting – four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age. ” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html

His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here

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